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  • 9th Circuit holds shipping company’s online arbitration agreement is valid

    Courts

    On May 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit denied a plaintiff’s writ of mandamus challenging the district court’s order compelling arbitration of the plaintiff’s claims against a national shipping company. According to the opinion, a customer filed a putative class action complaint alleging the company “systematically overcharges” customers by applying delivery surcharge rates through third-parties, which are higher than the company’s advertised rates. The company moved to compel arbitration because the customer enrolled in a free, optional program offered by the company that provides tracking and managing services of packages; and that enrollment in the program required the customer to agree to arbitrate all claims related to the company’s shipping services. The customer argued that while he checked the box agreeing to the service terms and technology agreement when enrolling, he should not be bound by the arbitration agreement because it was, among other things “so inconspicuous that no reasonable user would be on notice of its existence.” The district court rejected the customer’s arguments and granted the motion to compel arbitration.

    On review of the writ of mandamus, the appellate court acknowledged that “locating the arbitration clause at issue here requires several steps and a fair amount of web-browsing intuition,” detailing that “...the first hyperlink [is] to the 96-page Technology Agreement. The user must then read the [service terms] and understand that they incorporate [additional terms and conditions of service]…. the user must visit the full [company] website, intuitively find the link [to the additional terms and conditions of service] at the bottom of the webpage, select it, and locate yet another link to the [terms and conditions of service]” in order to read the document and locate the arbitration clause. The appellate court held that the “extraordinary remedy of mandamus” could not be awarded because it could not say “with ‘definite and firm conviction’ that the district court erred by finding the incorporation [of the terms and conditions of service] valid” and found that there is no question the customer affirmatively assented to the terms. While it did not impact its analysis, the appellate court noted that the company’s service terms document now includes a hyperlink to the terms and conditions of service and expressly informs the user that the terms contain an arbitration provision.

    Courts Appellate Ninth Circuit Arbitration Writ of Mandamus Class Action

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  • 3rd Circuit: Commercial purpose does not make unsolicited fax an advertisement under TCPA

    Courts

    On May 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in a consolidated action, affirmed summary judgment that a health care provider database company’s (defendant) unsolicited fax did not violate the TCPA. According to the opinion, the defendant updated its database by sending unsolicited faxes to healthcare providers, requesting that they voluntarily update their contact information, if necessary. The fax included disclaimers that there was no cost to the recipient for participating in the database maintenance initiative and that it was not an attempt to sell a product. The plaintiff sued the defendant alleging a state law claim and that the fax violated the TCPA’s prohibition on sending unsolicited advertisements by fax. The district court entered summary judgment in favor of the defendant and declined to exercise jurisdiction over the state law claim.

    On appeal, the 3rd Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment, rejecting the plaintiff’s third-party liability argument that the fax should be regarded as an advertisement, even though he was not a purchaser of the company’s services. The 3rd Circuit held that to establish third-party based liability under TCPA, the “plaintiff must show that the fax: (1) sought to promote or enhance the quality or quantity of a product or services being sold commercially; (2) was reasonably calculated to increase the profits of the sender; and (3) directly or indirectly encouraged the recipient to influence the purchasing decisions of a third party.” The appellate court found that, even though the defendant had a “profit motive” in sending the fax because it wanted to improve the quality of its product by making its database more accurate, “the faxes did not attempt to influence the purchasing decisions of any potential buyer,” nor did the fax encourage the recipient to influence the purchasing decisions of a third party.

    Courts Appellate Third Circuit TCPA

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  • 3rd Circuit holds trustee not liable for RMBS losses

    Courts

    On May 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of an investor action against Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities (RMBS) trustees, concluding the investors failed to show that the trustees breached any duties owed under the governing documents. According to the opinion, investors filed suit against the owner trustee for fifteen RMBS trusts, which became “worthless in the wake of widespread loan defaults,” claiming breach of contract and the implied covenant of good faith. The investors argued the trustee (i) abdicated its responsibilities relating to the loan files; (ii) failed to provide written notice of default; and (iii) failed to intervene when other parties exercised their duties carelessly. The trial court dismissed all claims against the trustee.

    On appeal, the appellate court concluded the trial court correctly dismissed the claims. Specifically, the appellate court noted that under the trusts’ governing documents, the trustee was acting as an “owner trustee,” which was “primarily ministerial, involving limited duties such as executing documents on behalf of the trusts and accepting service of legal process.” The trustee did not have an overarching duty to protect the trusts, as it agreed “to perform only the modest functions” under the governing agreements and therefore, was shielded from that general liability. The appellate court concluded that the investors failed to show the trustee breached any actual duties owed under the governing agreements, rejecting the investors’ three specific claims for breach of contract. Moreover, the court emphasized that the governing agreement “forecloses the implied duty [the investors] propose,” noting that the trustee negotiated for limited liability and received a fee in exchange for modest functions, making it “difficult to imagine” the trustee would willingly agree to “sweeping supervisory responsibility.”

    Courts Appellate Third Circuit RMBS Mortgages

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  • 10th Circuit: Compliance employees must show they went beyond established protocols to obtain FCA whistleblower retaliation protection

    Courts

    On April 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a former employee’s False Claims Act (FCA) whistleblower retaliation claims, holding that employees with compliance responsibilities bear the burden of showing that their alleged protected activities are not simply part of their job responsibilities. The case concerned a qui tam relator who alleged her former employer systemically violated the FCA when it knowingly and fraudulently billed the government for inadequately or improperly completed work, and then fired her in retaliation for trying to end the alleged fraud. According to the plaintiff—who was previously employed as a senior quality control analyst responsible for reviewing investigators’ work and documenting incomplete investigations—the company violated the FCA by: (i) “falsely certifying that it performed complete and accurate investigations”; (ii) “falsely certifying that it did proper case reviews and quality-control checks”; and (iii) “falsifying corrective action reports.” The district court, however, entered summary judgment for the company on all counts, determining that the plaintiff’s qui tam claims were “‘substantially the same’ as those that had been publically disclosed” in previous investigations and news reports, and dismissing her claims under the public disclosure bar. Her retaliation claim was dismissed after the district court determined that she had failed to properly plead that the company was on notice that she was engaging in protected activity.

    On appeal, the 10th Circuit concluded that the district court erred in its legal determinations on the qui tam claims, vacated the order for summary judgment, and remanded those claims for further proceedings. However, the 10th Circuit agreed with the district court’s decision to dismiss the plaintiff’s whistleblower retaliation claim, stating that in order to establish FCA whistleblower liability, an employer must know that the employee’s actions were connected to a claimed FCA violation, and an employee “must overcome the presumption that her internal reports of fraud were part of her job.” The appellate court held that because the plaintiff’s allegations did not show that she went outside of established protocols or broke her chain of command, she failed to allege adequately that the company was on notice of her claimed FCA-protected activity.

    Courts Tenth Circuit Appellate Whistleblower False Claims Act / FIRREA

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  • 9th Circuit revives FCRA suit against credit reporting agency

    Courts

    On May 17, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit revived a putative class action lawsuit against a national credit reporting agency for allegedly failing to follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy in the plaintiffs’ credit reports, in violation of the FCRA. According to the opinion, the credit reporting agency failed to delete all the accounts associated with a defunct loan servicer, despite statements claiming to have done so in January 2015. As of October 2015, 125,000 accounts from the defunct loan servicer were still being reported, and the accounts were not deleted until April 2016. A consumer filed the putative class action alleging the credit reporting agency violated the FCRA by continuing to report her past-due account, even after deleting portions of the positive payment history on the account. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the credit reporting agency on the consumer’s claim that the credit reporting agency failed to “follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy” in her credit report.

    On appeal, the court determined that a “reasonable jury could conclude that [the credit reporting agency]’s continued reporting of [the account], either on its own, or coupled with the deletion of portions of [the consumer’s] positive payment history on the same loan, was materially misleading.” Moreover, the appellate court noted that a jury could conclude that the credit reporting agency’s reading of the FCRA “runs a risk of error substantially greater than the risk associated with a reading that was merely careless,” and that the length of delay in implementing the decision to delete the defunct loan servicers accounts “entail[ed] ‘an unjustifiably high risk of harm that is either known or so obvious that it should be known.’”

    Courts Appellate Ninth Circuit FCRA Credit Reporting Agency Class Action

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  • 7th Circuit agrees with reduction of attorney’s fees in FDCPA action

    Courts

    On May 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit held a prevailing consumer’s request for $187,410 in attorney’s fees was unreasonable in a FDCPA action. In 2014, the consumer and a debt collector settled the consumer’s FDCPA related claims for $1,001 plus attorney’s fees of $4,500. Despite the settlement agreement, the debt collector continued to attempt to collect the debt, and the consumer sued a second time alleging violations of the FDCPA and FCRA. The consumer did not respond to multiple settlement offers from the debt collector, including one in March 2015 for $3,051, proceeding to trial on the FDCPA claim, and subsequently rejected a settlement offer from the debt collector of $25,000 and reasonable attorney’s fees. At trial, the jury only awarded the consumer the $1,000 in FDCPA statutory damages, after which he sought to recover $187,410 in attorney’s fees. The district court reduced his request to $10,875, concluding that the consumer’s rejection of “meaningful settlement offers precluded a fee award in such disproportion to his trial recovery.”

    On appeal, the appellate court agreed with the district court that the March 2015 settlement offer of $3,051 was reasonable, rejecting the consumer’s argument that the settlement “was not substantial and therefore should have been disregarded by the district court in determining the fee award.” The appellate court also rejected the consumer’s argument that because the settlement offer disclaimed liability for the debt collector, his results at the jury trial were much better than the settlement as it yielded judgment on the merits. The appellate court noted that settlement offers regularly disclaim liability, and by operation, judgment against the debt collector would still have been entered under Rule 68. Therefore, the appellate court concluded the district court did not abuse its discretion when reducing the attorney’s fees to $10,875 based on 29 hours’ worth of work at an hourly rate of $375 prior to the March 2015 settlement offer.

    Courts FDCPA Attorney Fees Debt Collection Settlement Appellate Seventh Circuit

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  • 2nd Circuit: FDCPA statute of limitations triggered by violation, not notice

    Courts

    On May 13, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit held that the FDCPA’s statute of limitations period starts when the violation occurs, rather than when the plaintiff receives notice of the violation. According to the opinion, a law firm (defendant) seeking to collect a debt against a borrower sent a restraining notice to a national bank, which erroneously referenced the plaintiff’s social security number and address. The bank froze the plaintiff’s accounts on December 13, 2011. The bank lifted the freeze two days later after the plaintiff contacted the bank about the freeze. On December 14, 2012, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the debt collector, alleging FDCPA violations. The plaintiff claimed the action was filed within the one-year statute of limitations because he did not learn about the restraining notice until December 14, 2011. In 2016, the district court, however, held that the statute of limitation was triggered when the defendant mailed the restraining notice (December 6), and thus the complaint was time-barred. The plaintiff appealed, and the 2nd Circuit held that an FDCPA violation occurs when an individual is injured by unlawful conduct and not when the notice is mailed. On remand, the parties conducted limited discovery, which confirmed that the bank placed a freeze on the plaintiff’s accounts on December 13, which was also the date that the plaintiff learned about the freeze. The defendant then moved for summary judgment, arguing that the complaint is time barred given that it was filed one year and one day after the date of the account freeze. The district court agreed, and the plaintiff filed a second appeal.

    On the second appeal, the 2nd Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. The appellate court reminded the plaintiff that a violation of the FDCPA occurs when an individual is injured by unlawful conduct—which in this case was the date the accounts were frozen—and emphasized that the panel’s earlier holding was not intended to “expand the FDCPA’s statute of limitations by requiring that individuals also receive ‘notice of the FDCPA violation.’” Because the plaintiff’s suit was filed one year and one day after the bank froze his accounts, his claim was time-barred.

    Courts Debt Collection FDCPA Statute of Limitations Appellate Second Circuit

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  • District court denies arbitration in FDCPA action

    Courts

    On May 13, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey denied a debt collector’s motion to compel arbitration in an FDCPA action, concluding that the existence of an arbitration agreement was not yet apparent based on the amended complaint. According to the opinion, a consumer brought a putative class action against a debt collector alleging the three collection letters it sent were “deceptive and misleading” under the FDCPA because the letters contained language regarding the possibility of IRS reporting, even though the debt was under the $600 threshold required for reporting. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the district court dismissed the action on its merits, without reaching the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit reversed, finding “the least sophisticated debtor could be left with the impression that reporting could occur” and therefore the language could signal a potential FDCPA violation, notwithstanding the letter’s qualifying statement that reporting is not required every time a debt is canceled or settled.

    On remand, the debt collector moved to compel arbitration of the claims arising from the three letters on an individual basis, arguing that the credit agreement between the consumer and the original creditor contained an arbitration provision and providing an example of the original creditor’s credit card agreement. The plaintiff rejected the example agreement, arguing that it was merely a generic exemplar that did not “demonstrate its applicability” to the consumer. In denying the debt collector’s motion, the court directed the parties to conduct limited discovery on the existence of an enforceable arbitration agreement between the parties. The court also denied the debt collector’s motion to dismiss new claims added to the amended complaint as time-barred because they “relate back” to the original complaint.

    Courts FDCPA Arbitration Debt Collection Third Circuit Appellate

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  • 11th Circuit continues flood insurance action against mortgage servicer

    Courts

    On May 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the dismissal of a consumer’s putative class action against her reverse mortgage servicer for the alleged improper placement of flood insurance on her home. The consumer claimed violations of the FDCPA and multiple Florida laws, including the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (FDUTPA), based on allegations that the mortgage servicer improperly executed lender-placed flood insurance on her property, even though the condo association had flood insurance covering the property. The lender-placed flood insurance resulted in $5,200 in premiums added to the balance of the loan, and an increase in financing costs on the mortgage. The district court dismissed the action, concluding the mortgage servicer was required by federal law to purchase the flood insurance and the monthly account statements were not collection letters under the FDCPA or state law.

    On appeal, the 11th Circuit agreed with the district court that the monthly account statements of the reverse mortgage, which prominently stated “this is not a bill” in bold, uppercase letters, and did not request or demand payment, were not an attempt to collect a debt under the FDCPA. Additionally, the appellate court concluded that the consumer failed to allege the mortgage servicer was a debt collector within the meaning of the FDCPA because the complaint does not allege that the debt was in default. The appellate court also affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the state debt collection claims for similar reasons. However, the appellate court reversed the district court’s dismissal of the consumer’s FDUTPA claims, noting that the mortgage servicer failed to cite to a state or federal law requiring it to purchase flood insurance “when it has reason to know that the borrower is maintaining adequate coverage” in the form a condo association insurance.  

    Courts Force-placed Insurance Flood Insurance Reverse Mortgages State Issues Mortgage Servicing Mortgages FDCPA Appellate Eleventh Circuit

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  • 9th Circuit: CFPB structure is constitutional; law firm must comply with CID

    Courts

    On May 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit held that (i) the CFPB’s single-director structure is constitutional, and that (ii) the district court did not err when it granted the Bureau’s petition to enforce a law firm’s compliance with a 2017 civil investigative demand (CID). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB previously determined that none of the objections raised by the law firm warranted setting aside or modifying the CID, which sought information to determine whether the law firm violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) when providing debt-relief services. The law firm contended that the CFPB’s single-director structure was unconstitutional and therefore the CID was unlawful. It argued further that the CFPB lacked statutory authority to issue the CID.

    On review, the 9th Circuit held that the for-cause removal restriction of the CFPB’s single director is constitutionally permissible based on existing Supreme Court precedent. The panel agreed with the conclusion reached by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit majority in the 2018 en banc decision in PHH v. CFPB (covered by a Buckley Special Alert) stating, “if an agency’s leadership is protected by a for-cause removal restriction, the President can arguably exert more effective control over the agency if it is headed by a single individual rather an a multi-member body.” The 9th Circuit noted that the dissenting opinion of then Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh found that the single-director structure was unconstitutional and noted that “[t]he Supreme Court is of course free to revisit those precedents, but we are not.”

    The 9th Circuit next addressed the law firm’s argument that the CFPB lacked statutory authority when it issued the CID. The panel held that the TSR “does not exempt attorneys from its coverage even when they are engaged in providing legal services,” and therefore, the Bureau has investigative authority without regard to the Consumer Financial Protection Act’s (CFPA) practice-of-law exclusion. In addition, the panel rejected the law firm’s argument that the CID was vague or overly broad, and stated that the CID fully complied with the CFPA’s requirements and identified the allegedly illegal conduct and violations.

    Courts Appellate Ninth Circuit CFPB Single-Director Structure CIDs Telemarketing Sales Rule

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